BUFFALO BILL Reproduced by permission of "The Calvary Journal" Washington, D. C.
MY FRIEND, BUFFALO BILL
As Told by General Charles King to Don Russell, First Lieutenant, 342nd Infantry
General Charles King, at 88 years of age, one of the oldest of living graduates of West Point, veteran of the Civil War, Apache and Sioux Indian Wars, Spanish American War, Philippine Insurrection, and War, favorite novelist of a generation or so ago, once more tells the story of Buffalo Bill's greatest exploit, of which he was an eye-witness, in the following interview. It includes much new material gathered since his writing of the story nearly fifty years ago in "Campaigning With Crook," now out of print.
Was there such a person as Buffalo Bill? You might doubt it, if you believed all that you read nowaday. Thousands of persons now living have seen the magnificient figure of William Frederick Cody directing the presentation of his Wild West show. But there are those who maintain that Cody was never anything but a showman, that he was only the hero of a series of dime novels and of exploits on the stage and in the arena.
It may be that Cody brought some of this on himself. He was always regarded as strictly honest while he served my regiment, the Fifth Cavalry, as chief of scouts. I think there is no doubt that later, under pressure of his publicity men, perhaps when his show was in difficulties, Cody somewhat dramatized and expanded his celebrated exploits. I do not believe he ever told anything that injured anyone else or tended to detract from another's accomplishments, but there is no question but that he made the best story he could about himself.
Now, even his most celebrated exploit, the killing of Yellow Hand, the Cheyenne chief, at the fight on the War Bonnet in 1876, is doubted. That is going too far. To take a grain of salt doesn't mean that you must put it in your eye.
I saw that fight from start to finish. Probably fifteen other persons were in a position to see all or any part of it. Of these it would seem at least a hundred survive, most of whom either killed Yellow Hand themselves or saw someone other than Buffalo Bill do it.
So long as General Wesley Merritt, General Eugene A. Carr, Colonels Mason, Sanford C. Kellogg and Leib, and Captain Montgomery, Hayes, and W. P. Hall were alive these modern claims for the honor of having killed Yellow Hand were silent. At the time I never heard of the "Sergeant Jacob Blaut" whose story has been quoted. The members of the advance guard, under my command, were all - Sergeant Schreiber, a fine old veteran of whom the entire regiment was proud, Corporal Wilkinson, and eight private troopers - from my own company, K, commanded by the senior captain of the regiment Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Julius W. Mason.
You will remember that in 1876 three expeditions were sent out against the Sioux under the respective commands of Generals Alfred H. Terry, George Crook and John Gibbon. After roughly handling General Crook's column the Indians fell on the Seventh Cavalry commanded by General George A. Custer and detached from Terry's column, and destroyed Custer and five of his twelve troops, the remaining seven under Major Reno and Captain Benteen suffering heavy casualties before they were rescued by Terry and Gibbon.
News of this disaster caused reinforcements to be sent to the troops in the field, and my regiment, the Fifth Cavalry, was assembled from various stations in Kansas and ordered to join Crook. Shortly after we started our march William F. Cody, "Buffalo Bill," joined the regiment as chief of scouts, a position he had held previous to its five years service in Arizona from which it recently had returned.
We were marching toward Fort Laramie with seven troops and at noon, Saturday, July 15, seven troops were resting at Rawhide Creek, eighteen miles from the fort, when a courier appeared with dispatches stating that some eight hundred Cheyennes were preparing to leave their reservation with the intention of joining Sitting Bull and the Sioux. Merritt decided at once to attempt to head them off. To do this he had to march eighty to eighty-five miles around three sides of a long rectangle before the Indians could march thirty miles. Of course the Indians did not know there was a race - the roundabout course was taken to deceive them. A direct march toward them would have driven them toward the Sioux. Eighty and more miles in a day and a half is no easy march, but Merritt's troops made it on time and by Sunday evening were across the trail the Indians were expected to take, at War Bonnet or Hat Creek, the Indian name being variously transiated. The troops went in bivouac, hidden under the bluffs.
That night I was detailed to command the outposts toward the southeast, from which direction the enemy was expected.
At daybreak next morning I am on a hilltop with Corporal Wilkinson of K company - my troop - searching the horizon for Indians. Wilkinson is first to see a small group of the Cheyennes. Word is sent to General Merritt. Soon we see other small bands of the enemy. General Merritt, General Carr and several other officers come to the ridge. Among them is one troop captain, Sumner.
We see more and more Indians, but they are not approaching. Why? They do not seem to be trying to hide from us, so it does not seem probable that they suspect the trap. Our men have built very few fires, and those are well concealed.
Soon it is explained. To our right front, about four miles away, I should say, we see the white covers of our wagon train. We had supposed them left far, far behind in our rapid march, but Lieutenant William P. Hall has done much more than was expected of him, as it happens almost too much.
We are worried about him. He knows the Indians are about and he is ready with a trap for them. He has two companies of infantry as train guard, and we see no sign of them. We know why. They are hidden in the wagons.
The Cheyennes are due for a surprise when they attack that train. Before they recover from it, we shall be among them. Our scheme is not affected.
"Have the men had coffee?" General Merritt asks. "Yes, sir," reports Adjutant William C. Forbush. "Then, let them saddle up and close in mass under the bluff, Merritt orders. General Carr leaves to see to the execution of this command. Sumner rejoins his troop.
Now comes a complication that spoils this plan and gives Buffalo Bill his chance. He and others of the scouts are with us on the hill.
Cody is the first to notice an unusual scurrying around among the Cheyennes. A dozen or so whip up their ponies and start down the ravine toward us. We look along the road by which the wagons are approaching and see why. Two couriers are advancing rapidly from the train towards us. They are Troopers Anderson and Keith of C company and they had ridden nearly twenty-five miles farther than we had, for C troop had been sent from Rawhide clear up to the Niobrara crossing of the road to Fort Robinson. They have now been sent to find Merritt and they know about where he is to be found. Of course, they have no suspicious that the Indians have arrived also.
Now this road is to our right front, and the ravine down which the Indians are approaching is to our left, ravine and trail meeting slightly to the right and in front of our position. In other words, because of the intervening high ground, the Indians must pass close in front of us in order to run down the two couriers, and all in the world they are after is those poor fellows' scalps.
Cody is the first to see the opportunity.
"By Jove! General, now's our chance," I quoted him in "Campaigning With Crook" and those were about his words. "Let our party mount here and we'll cut those fellows off."
"Up with you, then, " is Merritt's answer. "Stay where you are, King. Watch them until they are close under you; then give the word. Come down, every other man of you."
I am the only man left on top of the hill. My hat is off. Only the top of my head and my binoculars are visable above the crest, and I am not seen. Merritt and two staff officers, Forbush and J. Haydon Parbee of the 23d Infantry, are crouching just out of sight down the slope. Nearby are Sergeant Schreiber and Corporal Wilkinson.
Cody who was quick to see the chance and first to suggest it, is given the honor of leading the dash. He is mounted and ready below. With him are two scouts and five or six private troopers. The scouts are Tait and White, the latter Buffalo Bill's shadow and great admirer, known, for these reasons, as "Buffalo Chips." He was killed a few weeks later at Slim Buttes, where the chief, American Horse, was slain.
I watch the Indians through my binoculars. If I give the word too soon they may take alarm and escape. If I wait too long they may get the scalps of those two men. It is a magnificient sight as I see them drawing near, their beautiful long war bonnets trailing, the sun flashing from their armlets and polished lances, in their war paint, with their gaily decorated rawhide shields.
I look back.
"All ready, general?"
"All ready, King. Give the word when you like."
"I wait until I hear the panting of their ponies, until they are much less than a hundred yards away.
"Now lads, in with you."
Those were my exact words. They were so quoted in "Campaigning With Crook," and in an article which appeared in the New York Herald of July 23, 1876, of which more later.
Cody gives a cheer and leads his little band against the Indians flank. The next few moments are busy ones. Merritt, Corporal Wilkinson and the rest spring up beside me to see the attack. For a moment we see nothing, as both parties have been carried beyond our view. We hear a shot, then another, and look eagerly to see who is going on.
Suddenly, Wilkinson pulls at the general's sleeve excitedly; he points to the front: we are looking to the left. There, just in front of us, we see a fine figure of an Indian on horseback. He has just darted into view and hearing the shots and shouts behind him, he reined in quickly. He tries to see what is going on.
"Shall I fire?" Wilkinson asks.
"Yes, if you like," Merritt snaps.
The corporal fires. The Indian swings down in his saddle and almost immediately an answering that whistles by the general's ear, whether fired from under the horses's neck or otherwise I am not certain, but probably in the manner you may have seen in the Wild West shows or in the movies, the Indian swinging down behind his pony's body.
The newspaper account says this Indian was shot by Wilkinson but I do not think so. I think he was so excited that he missed. The only importance of it is that later Wilkinson got the idea into his head that he had killed Yellow Hand. Yellow Hand was shot only a few yards away, but it is somewhat doubtful if Wilkinson shot anybody, and I am sure this was not the Indian called Yellow Hand. I think this was the only shot Wilkinson fired that day.
Years later Buffalo Bill's show played in the town where Wilkinson was then living, and as was his invarable custom when he heard of an old comrade being nearby, Cody paid high tribute to him in his press notices and invited him to come out to the show. [ unreadable ] They got together and presumably divided the honors; at all events Wilkinson said no more about shooting Yellow Hand, and Cody, of course, said nothing to discredit Wilkinson's story of having killed an Indian chief in the battle. The story still crops up, but that is all the basis for it.
But as these shots were fired, that of Wilkinson and that of the Cheyenne, I see the main body of the Indians rushing down the ravine and coming up by the dozens from all over the ridge. I shout a warning to Merritt.
"Send up the first company," he orders and springs to his saddle, followed by his adjutant.
The first company is my company, K troop (they were known officially as "Companies" although "troop: is no the proper designation in cavalry." Its commander is Captain and Brevet Lieut. Colonel Mason.
Of course I look around for my horse but the orderly, who has been holding several has lost him and I, see him dashing across the plain. It is perhaps 45 seconds before I run him down and then I am in a bad position for mounting. The McClellan saddle is high, the saddle roll and other field equipment of that day pile it up higher, and I have a crippled right arm. We circled around two or three times before I am able to make it, but I am mounted in time to join the first platoon of my company.
Now, this is long in the telling, but it is perhaps not much more than sixty seconds from the time we hear the first shot until we are dashing past Cody who is standing over the body of the Indian chief he has killed, waving the handsome war bonnet and shouting something - perhaps it is, "The first scalp for Custer." That is the way he always told the story and it is probable - the event was fresh and everyone was thinking of it.
But it was a war bonnet, not a scalp he was waving. He could not have scalped the Indian in that short a time.
Nearby we see the Indian's pony, dead, in a heap.
The Indian was identified as Hay-o-wei, a young Cheyenne leader. The name was translated for us by a half-breed guide known as "Little Bat" as meaning "Yellow Hand," and so we alway called him in speaking of the affair. Much later an Indian authority who claims to know the Cheyenne language told me the name really means "Yellow Hair" and probably refers to a scalp he had taken, possibly a white woman's.
Now what had happened?
If any reliance can be placed on the stories of the affair in Cody's autobiographies, Hay-o-wei recognized Cody when he first appeared and called out. "Come on! Come on! White Long Hair." (Cooa Cooa Pe-ha-ha-has-ka" in Cheyenne according to Cody. "White Long Hair" was Cody's Indian name.)
Later this doubtful story was expanded to medieval romance involving a challenge and a duel between the lines. There was nothing like that. It was all over very quickly, and it was a general fight, although Cody and Hay-o-wei met without interference. The others were all busy.
As near as I could make out at the time, from what I saw and from what two soldiers who were in the charge with Cody said, both fired at once, Cody's shot piercing Hay-o-wei's leg and his pony's heart. The Indian's shot missed Cody, but Cody's horse stepped into a gopher hole and threw him. The soldiers say Cody got up, recovered his rifle, and fired again, the shot killing the Indian, who, of course, was also on the ground.
That was the story as I first wrote it. When we reached Fort Laramie after the long dusty march, and I was just setting out for a swim in the North Platte, Cody brought me a telegram from the New York Herald, then edited by James Gordon Bennett, asking for an account of his services in the campaign. Because he knew well I was his warm friend, and because he believed I had seen the entire affair between him and Hay-o-wei, he asked me to write an account of the fight. Because the matter was urgent and because I knew it meant much to him, I went at once with him and two civilians to the little frame building in which were the adjutant's office, the telegraph office, and one or two other rooms.
I wrote a brief story and, when I read it aloud to Cody, his companions, and the listening telegraph operator, I noticed the expression of pleasure on Cody's face at the rather vivid description.
"How'll that do?" I asked him as I finished.
"Oh, it's bully," he said. "It's fine, only - " but though he hesitated, he let it go, possibly that as he had asked me to write, he ought to stand by what I wrote so that never until long years after, forty-five years perhaps, when we were together at Pine Ridge Agency, did he tell me that he had finished Hay-o-wei with a big hunting knife.
"Why, we have it at home on the mantel-piece," he said.
Well, perhaps he did. Perhaps in his excitement, Cody plunged in with his knife even as the poor fellow was dying, or perhaps it was a hand-to-hand fight with knives as he sometimes told the story, but if so it couldn't have lasted very long. Whatever happened, Cody was in considerable danger at that time, and one cannot blame him for making certain he didn't get a shot in the back. It was not civilized warfare.
The newspaper story, however, was not printed as I wrote it, and I presume one of the men present was a reporter who added other material he had gathered. My own story, four years later, in "Campaigning With Crook," was to the same effect, however.
But, at all events, Cody was waving the war bonnet as we of Company K dashed by in a charge on the would-be rescuers just emerging from the ravine.
The Indians fire a chattering volley as our long blue line pops over the ridge, but as they see the gray horse Troop B, Captain Robert H. Montgomery, about sixty yards to the right rear, and Troop I, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Kellogg, coming front into line at a gallop about the same distance to our left rear, they wheel and scatter.
We advance cautiously in open order to the ridge, but as it is gained, we see the Indians fleeing in all directions. We follow them thirty-five miles to the reservation, but they keep ahead, and by the time we get there it is impossible to tell which have been out on the war party and which remained as friendly as all of them pretended to be.
But we have kept eight hundred re-inforcements from Sitting Bull, and the Cheyennes are discouraged from going on the warpath.
And no one can take the credit form Buffalo Bill of having led and planned the first attack and of having killed the leader of the Indian party.
The collaborator would like to add a few words to General King's account.
General Merritt neglected to make an official report of the fight on the War Bonnett, probably because he left the regiment on leave shortly after it took place. This some-what limits the historical evidence.
But Buffalo Bill's true claim to fame is supported by ample evidence. General Philip H. Sheridan in his "Personal Memoirs" tells of Cody's "exhibition of endurance and courage" in riding three hundred and fifty miles in less than sixty hours and refers to his services as "extremely valuable." General Nelson A. Miles in "Serving the Republic" refers to him as "a prince among hunters and frontiersmen," and remarks on his "superior horsemanship and rifle shooting."
But, even in his real achievements, there was some thing of the theatrical about Buffalo Bill that makes him hard to believe in a more prosiac age. On the occassion of the War Bonnet fight he is said to have worn one of his stage costumes a Mexican outfit of black velvet slashed with scarlet and trimmed with silver buttons and lace. One can hardly imagine any-one riding to battle so attired - unless he thinks of Custer's black velvet coat and breeches, scarlet necktie, gold-laced chevrons, and wide brimmed hat that he wore as a brigadier-general of cavalry in the battles of the Army of the Potomac.
Was Cody thinking "first scalp for Custer" when he doned this similar dress, was he thinking of next winter's appearance before the footlights, or was it that he didn't have any other clothes to change to?
At any rate he became the hero of his own drama in "as plucky a single
combat on both sides as is ever witnessed," as General King termed it long
ago. It had all the elements of a modern western thriller - rescue of two
soldiers, dash of cavalry, hand-to-hand combat - and no account of over
dramatization can spoil it much.